How I’m revolutionizing the Kenyan coffee industry
By Zipporah Gatiti
Do you have special memories from when you were a child? Maybe of spending time with a special person and the small, but important rituals you shared together? For me that memory was spending time with my Grandmother Esther on her small coffee farm at the slopes of Mount Kenya.
I grew up spending summers at my Grandma’s farm. Grandma would spend all day working under the scorching sun nurturing the coffee and carefully monitoring the progress of the beans. Once the heat of the day passed, we would sit around and listen to her stories while the rich aroma of freshly brewed Kenyan coffee wafted in from the kitchen, filling the night air and fueling the stories.
Over time I moved to Europe, settled there and completed a degree in computer science, but I never forgot Grandma’s stories or her coffee. On a recent trip back to Kenya I made my way to the farm. The years had not been kind to Grandma or her neighbors. Many had abandoned growing coffee altogether and had diversified into other crops. Grandma was herself thinking about the future of her farm.
“Grandma, would you also replant your farm?” I asked, saddened by the thought of losing the coffee we loved.
“I get some money from coffee, but it’s not much,” she told me. “It’s impossible to survive on coffee alone.”
This is the story of my Grandmother, but it is also the challenge faced by many small scale farmers in Kenya who toil hard on their coffee farms yet fail to benefit from their effort.
Local coffee co-operatives fail to get the job done
Small-scale coffee growers produce 60% of all the coffee in Kenya and they all sell their coffee to local co-operatives. The co-operatives are a patchwork of member-run groups that often fail to get top prices for the coffee, lose money to inefficiency and are sometimes late in paying the farmers. This is because co-operatives are too small and are not able to source overseas buyers to open up other avenues for direct selling.
Grandma and her neighbors were facing the loss of their industry not because of market pressures or lack of demand, but because of the lack of alternative marketing channels. This is despite the fact that premium coffee grown on these Kenyan highlands is some of the most sought after in the world.
I felt there must be a better way for the coffee farmers to get better prices for their coffee.
When I started exploring the coffee supply chain, I discovered it consisted of the following stages:
- coffee is harvested by small-scale farmers
- processed by millers
- advertised by marketing agents
- auctioned to traders
- and shipped by exporters to roasters globally.
The supply chain was characterized by high fragmentation and was not only hurting the farmers, but also impacting the roasters who wanted direct access to a variety of single-origin coffee.
Roasters need a single, dependable source
Joe, a New Zealand native living in London, is passionate about excellent coffee — making it, roasting it, promoting it and selling it. He has been roasting for the last six years and holds Kenyan coffee in high regard.
“Kenyan coffee has a unique, high acidic, fragrant floral taste with intense red berry flavors, and a very clean finish,” he said. “The right Kenyan coffee has our customers talking about it for the rest of the year, and looking again for it the next season.”
Joe wants to buy coffee directly from small-lot farms, but like thousands of other roasters, he lacks the infrastructure to source and trace the coffee. He needs a dependable source where he can buy a variety of premium coffee and also trace the coffee’s origin.
“We face delays in shipment and delivery of coffee,” Joe said. “At times warehouse releases are lost in systems resulting in delivery delays.”
Like the coffee farmers, independent roasters also operate on tight margins and cannot afford any disruption in the supply chain. They are willing to pay more for premium coffee that can be verifiably sourced from small-lot Kenyan farms.
“Traceability to the farm is a must for us,” Joe said.
After witnessing Grandma distress about the possibly of having to sell the family coffee farm and the frustrations faced by roasters in getting access to a variety of coffee from small-lot farms, I decided to address their needs and created Taste of Kenya.
Taste of Kenya bridges the gap
Taste of Kenya, a third generation coffee family, intends to create a marketplace that will connect coffee growers in Kenya directly with specialty roasters worldwide. This will ensure the farmers get better prices for their coffee and are paid on time, while the roasters will have access to single source, traceable, premium, small-lot Kenyan coffee supported by farm traceability for which they will pay more.
Through Taste of Kenya, I want to create a global social business that will bring real value to the disadvantaged coffee farming community and at the same time preserve the integrity and quality of the coffee production process. It is my intention through this organization to right a wrong in the fragmented and distributed value process that is not transparent and does not adequately compensate farmers.
Taste of Kenya’s advantage
The specialty coffee industry is a vibrant and growing segment that is innovative and focused on high quality coffee with traceability to the farm. This is driven by rising consumer demand for artisan, hand-crafted coffee. Upholding the quality and consistency of the bean has become essential in this industry.
Taste of Kenya will deliver this by sourcing our coffee directly from small-lot farms, and at times working with local co-operatives who in many places welcome us because we can get better prices for their members. We will import the green coffee from small-lots farms in Kenya, store it in a warehouse in Dublin, and then ship it on-demand to specialty coffee roasters in Europe and globally. This will ensure farmers get fair, fast payment and reduce the shipment delays faced by roasters.
Leveraging business school
The highly experiential Entrepreneurship Summer School (ESS) at London Business School has given me the methodologies and tools to identify, assess and develop an informed understanding of the overall Kenyan coffee market and craft a viable business model.
My business knowledge was further segmented by applying for the exchange program at Kellogg to gain exposure to a new learning environment. A key reason for applying was Kellogg’s significant strength in marketing and strategy areas that will be fundamental in my business going forward. Kellogg also has the added strength of having a supportive environment that encourages teamwork and access to influential marketing faculty across different sectors.
The time spent at both business schools, with faculty who are thought leaders and surrounded by fellow entrepreneurial students in a collaborative environment, has empowered me to pursue this business opportunity.
Like my Grandmother, I am passionate about great coffee. But more importantly I am passionate about harnessing the power of business not only to make a profit, but also to improve the livelihoods of countless Kenyan farmers.
This is why Taste of Kenya exists, so that farmers like my Grandmother can continue to work on the land they love, and so you can continue to enjoy the smell and taste of freshly brewed Kenyan coffee directly from the farm to your cup.
Zipporah Gatiti is an Executive MBA student at the London Business School who currently is an exchange student at Kellogg. Born and raised in Nairobi, she spent her childhood on her family’s coffee estate at the slopes of Mount Kenya. She is a senior IT manager with more than 13 years of experience managing high impact projects within corporate companies.